How to tackle reopening anxiety on campus

As colleges across the US plan to reopen in full this fall, many students are celebrating. But for some, this return to normal is causing anxiety.

Clock5 min readCalendarPublished: 16 Aug 2021

With already high rates of anxiety and depression, student mental health was notoriously poor before the pandemic and the events of the last eighteen months have not helped. A recent survey found 95% of college students experienced negative mental health symptoms due to COVID-19-related circumstances, with almost half (45%) reporting an increase in anxiety levels.

With that in mind, we take a look at some of the ways colleges can help students dealing with anxiety return to campus.

What is anxiety?

Everybody experiences anxiety from time to time, it’s a normal response to stressful situations. The problem arises when people experience persistent fear in situations that are not actually threatening.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US, affecting around 19% of the adult population. Left untreated, anxiety can prevent people from going about their daily life. Symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • Feeling doomed
  • Hyperventilation
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia

Despite the prevalence of anxiety disorders, they are actually highly treatable according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Yet only 36.9% of people dealing with this issue get treatment.

Combatting reopening anxiety

Here we’ll take a look at some of the strategies you can implement to help students dealing with anxiety around campus reopening.

1. Normalise it

While many students are excited to get back to campus, the trauma of the last eighteen months has undoubtedly had an impact on student mental health. A survey led by The Ohio State University’s Chief Wellness Officer found that anxiety and depression are on the rise among students, despite the return to campus.

Take student burnout. When the survey was first carried out in August 2020, around 40% of students reported experiencing burnout. By April 2021 that percentage increased to 71%.

The first step in addressing a mental health issue is to accept there is one, so it makes sense to focus on helping students feel less alone in these feelings first and foremost.

Of course, colleges will need to encourage fostering resilience and adopting coping skills, which we know are both protective against mental health disorders, too. But students who feel isolated by, or shame about, their anxiety may not be open to help yet.

There are many methods of normalising these feelings. Even briefly acknowledging them in correspondence with students can be a subtle but effective strategy. You might also like to highlight resources that go into more detail, such as an in-depth blog post or Q&A video with your wellbeing team, so that students who are impacted by anxiety can easily access more information.

2. Encourage practice and repetition

Anybody who has experienced anxiety can sympathise with the following strategy: avoidance. But we now know that avoiding the source of anxiety is not actually helpful in the long-term. The ADAA states:

“Treating yourself as if you are fragile and avoiding risk leads to feeling demoralized. Avoiding anxiety tends to reinforce it. You can be anxious and still do whatever you have to do.”

The message is clear; to overcome anxiety, practice and repetition are key. Many students have been largely isolated for a year and a half, so getting back into normal activities like attending in-person lectures and going to social events will feel daunting. While it’s important not to shame students for these feelings, it is vital that they engage in them if they want their anxiety levels to decrease.

Colleges can help encourage practice and repetition by making sure there is opportunity for anxious students to join in where they feel able. For example, organising some social events outside where anxious students may feel more comfortable joining in.

It goes without saying that everyone should decide for themselves what level of risk they are happy to tolerate, but it’s important that they are guided by real-world evidence and not anxiety.

The ADAA highlights how this can manifest with anxiety about COVID-19: “Americans believe that people age 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths. The actual figure is 2.7%,” and “Americans overestimate the risk of death from COVID-19 for people 24 and younger by a factor of 50.”

3. Provide the right services

There are plenty of evidence-based programs and resources to help tackle anxiety.

Different types of therapy, such as interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy can all help reduce anxiety. Mindfulness and relaxation practices like meditation and yoga can also help lower stress levels. Many colleges are taking this a step further, with mindfulness exercises and cognitive-behavioral skills for stress reduction now embedded in the actual curriculum.

As well as making sure the right programs are available, there needs to be the right people around too. Given the increasing emphasis on student mental health, it’s becoming clear that all campuses would benefit from a dedicated team of student mental health professionals.

Once services are in place, it’s vital that they are clearly communicated if they are to reach students in need. In response to the aforementioned survey, Ohio State University built a mental health checklist for students called Five to Thrive, it helps students quickly and efficiently see what they could be doing and explains how to access help.

4. Empower healthy choices

The Ohio State University survey found that along with a rise in mental health issues, students were also adopting negative coping mechanisms like eating unhealthy food, drinking and vaping.

Yet these habits may well be exacerbating their anxiety. The AADA recommends the following coping mechanisms to help people dealing with anxiety:

  • Eat regular, healthy meals
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine
  • Get enough sleep and rest
  • Exercise daily

While colleges cannot make students adopt a healthy lifestyle, they can help encourage it in a couple of ways. Firstly, they can highlight the link between lifestyle and mental health disorders. Secondly, they can empower students by making healthy choices accessible.

There are myriad ways of achieving this. Consider the issue of eating regular, healthy meals. Food insecurity (having limited or uncertain access to food) is unfortunately an issue for a lot of US students. A survey found that 45% of students from over 100 institutions had experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days.

There are many steps colleges can take to address this, such as appointing a member of staff in the wellbeing team responsible for basic needs and who can refer students in need before they reach crisis point (which is what accessing a food pantry is).

5. Promote organization

One way to combat anxiety, part of which is a fear of uncertainty, is to get organized. The mental health charity, Mind, state that anxiety around reopening is a valid feeling and one way to manage it is to make choices to control the things you can:

“Although the coronavirus outbreak means that your choices are limited, try to focus on the things you can change, rather than the things that are outside your control.”

There are many facets of life which remain within our control and helping students to regain some control in certain areas may help. For example, being ill-equipped for a return to college will aggravate existing anxiety in many cases.

Colleges can help students prepare for the return by highlighting the importance of arriving prepared to study effectively. This might include a list of helpful study tools they can familiarise themselves with, advice on how to plan their day effectively or information on different systems of studying for different learning styles.

In summary…

As college campuses across the US gear up to open fully in fall, it's clear some students will need help readjusting to this return to normal.

There are plenty of ways colleges can help students suffering from 'reopening anxiety', starting with normalising these feelings. This will enable students who need help to access it, as it breaks down the barrier of shame.

From there colleges can help students tackle their anxiety through encouraging them to participate in incremental steps and providing them with a robust set of services so they can access evidence-based help such as mindfulness and CBT.

Colleges can also encourage students to make positive lifestyle changes by making healthy choices, like nutritious food, accessible. Lastly, colleges can help students take control by empowering them to arrive at college prepared and organized, equipped with the right tools to study well and make the most of their time at college.

Join the discussion

How is your campus reopening this Fall? Will you be welcoming students back in person?

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